Feature Article - August 2009
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Safety & Protection for All: How the Right Risk Management

Strategy Makes Recreation More Enjoyable

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Q: How do you communicate your risk management policy to your patrons? Can it be implied in some cases?

"Look for point-of-contact places to convey messages," said PDRMA's Hoffman. Recreational program brochures can include information about accessibility and special notes about seasonal issues and hazards: stay away from the pond, keep off the ice, limit sledding to sanctioned sled hills and so on. "Maybe note that your facility doesn't carry medical insurance, so visitors should check their own coverage before playing," he added. Brochures can also remind readers about local ordinances, such as no dogs in the park.

Another way to communicate is signage in parks themselves, Hoffman added. Prominently placed on-site signs serve as inescapable reminders of everything from the rules associated with using the skatepark to the fact that alcohol is not allowed on park premises. "You may also do a public service announcement on a loop in the lobby of a large fitness center," he said. "If you're closing something because of a hazard or vandalism, use signs and barriers, so if there's a danger the public is aware. Make [your barriers] obvious and provide a level of warning. Then, if they circumvent them, they become trespassers, and you have a defense. You can't be everywhere all the time," he added. "People do weird things."

Finally, local ordinances can go a long way toward providing a base level of safety and protection for parks and their users. "Even if they're not posted, [these local laws] are publicly available and can help set the rules. If someone doesn't follow them, [ordinances] can be relied on for a legal defense." For example, with a good blanket of snow on the ground, sledders may choose their hills poorly and rocket down steep embankments near busy roadways. "We'd recommend putting up a No Sledding sign, but also enact an ordinance," Hoffman said. "Then even if they don't see the sign, you have a non-intended use law in place to protect the agency."

Ornelas agrees that signs and other markers should be placed everywhere they can. "On bleachers or stairs, paint yellow or red as appropriate. If stairs are steep or slick, put a surface on the walkway, but also a sign to indicate this," he said. "Even for obvious things, it's still a good idea to have signage, [such as] 'play at your own risk.' If you don't have that and get sued because someone gets hurt, you could make the argument that they're assuming the risk [when they choose to play], but [the argument is] stronger if you have a sign or someone there supervising.

"Every little bit helps." he added. "Risk management is a cost/benefit thing. As an attorney I recommend doing it all, but as a practical matter it's not always that easy because of money. The more you can do with your budget the better."

Make sure your warnings are appropriate to the situation, Spengler added. "Let's say it's a playground. You want to have signs indicating, where appropriate, that parental supervision is required, the age limits for equipment use, and warnings for areas that are considered to be likely areas of injury…. It's not wise to rest on an assumption of risk, but warnings—verbal, via signage and in waivers for activities or events taking place—can all help put the user on notice that there are risks involved. [This is essential] not just from a legal standpoint, but also an ethical one. You want people to know the risks so they can decide to do or not do [the activity] and know the possibilities to have a fun and safe experience."